Geez, I shouldn’t have put off seeing this movie so long considering it really is my beat. This is kind of a miracle actually. This is the rare DTV movie that could’ve passed for a low budget theatrical movie. The only thing really holding it back is being a prequel with a different star from the original, which is a real good reason not to release it in theaters. Going straight to video lowers the expectations and makes it only half count as a sequel or prequel, which gives it a better shot at working. And for me it did. Even if you don’t go for it I think you will be awed by its competence. This is definitely a landmark in DTV sequelization.
I love the original CARLITO’S WAY, but I haven’t seen it in years, so that probaly helps. I never knew this but DePalma’s movie was based on the second book in a series. The book was called After Hours, but they didn’t want it confused with the Scorsese movie of the same name so they called it CARLITO’S WAY, after the first book in the series. RISE TO POWER is actually adapted from the book Carlito’s Way, according to legend. (I haven’t read the books so who knows.)
Like in DePalma’s movie, this one starts out with Carlito Brigante fresh out of prison, but he goes right back into crime, he doesn’t make any effort to stay out of it. The story is about the heroin trade in New York some time in the late ’60s or early ’70s or so. Control of the city is split between black gangs in Harlem, Puerto Rican gangs in spanish Harlem and Italians in some other part, I don’t know. The genius of Carlito’s operation is that he works a triumvirate with his two former cellmates, the Italian Rocco (Michael Kelly, DAWN OF THE DEAD remake) and Earl (Mario Van Peebles, everything). Each of them deals with the hotshots in one of the territories, so Carlito deals with the Puerto Ricans, Earl with the blacks and Rocco with the eye-talians. Strangely, you don’t see Carlito’s deals as much as you see the other two. Earl has to negotiate with the oppulent priss Hollywood Nicky (Sean Combs, “anything can happen”) who runs Harlem and Rocco has to deal with some standard mafia types, and both of them give alot more trouble than Carlito’s buddy Colorado (Casper Martinez, CARLITO’S ANGELS).
I should mention that poor Rocco doesn’t even get pictured on the cover. What the fuck. I understand you gotta put Puffy Diddy on there and you gotta put Luis Guzman, but this is one of the main characters, he goes on there too.
Anyway it’s kind of a SCARFACE type of story but with less struggle. Carlito is actually portrayed as a nice sensitive guy and alot of it is about him falling in love with a coat check girl. And of course he can’t die at the end so you don’t get the tragic going out with a bang ending that these type of stories usually have. But I thought it was a pretty good (mostly unoriginal) crime story and it kept me involved. And they do a good job getting a period feel on a low budget. I think the music goes a long way toward creating the atmosphere. The score itself (done by the same guy as the original, I think) is cheesy but they did a good job choosing songs by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the Delfonics, the Dramatics and people like that. None of the same obvious songs you hear in every movie to tell you the time period. No Superfly in this one.
The weak link in this movie, unfortunately, is Jay Hernandez playing Carlito. I didn’t care so much for this chump in HOSTEL and taking on Carlito Brigante is a pretty big task. I understand it’s gonna be hard to replace Al Pacino no matter what your budget is. And for Jay Hernandez, Jay Hernandez does a damn good job. I was able to put up with him for most of the movie. I got past it. But you can definitely see him struggling. Maybe it was a deliberate choice to make Carlito not as confident when he’s younger, but it’s kind of a shame at times. The movie would be alot better if they could find a guy that had more of a presence, who takes charge of every scene without saying anything. I didn’t really buy that this particular guy could lead a criminal empire.
You also got Sean Puff Diddy Combs of MTV Movie Awards hosting fame as Hollywood Nicky. This is a perfect character for a jackass like that to play. The premise of the character is that he wears fancy white suits, drinks out of a gold tea set in his vintage Rolls Royce, and that kind of bullshit. So he is basically playing himself. His acting is not really terrible or good. He doesn’t really pull off the menace but he’s not laughable. He’s probaly better than you should expect from DTV, at least.
Luis Guzman is also in here, playing a different character than he played in the original CARLITO’S WAY. It’s hard for me to believe there could be two people in the world who look like Luis Guzman, but oh well. He’s got a couple funny lines here and it’s always good to see him in a movie, good or bad.
By far the best thing about this movie: Mario Van Peebles. I have given him alot of shit over the years for how many DTV movies he appears in, but I would like to take this opportunity to take it all back. He is fucking great in this movie, he elevates it with his performance. Remember how cool he was playing his pops in the otherwise overrated BADAASSSSS!? That’s what he’s doing here, wearing the badass ’70s collars and hats, smoking a cigar and scowling. I actually wish the movie was EARL’S WAY: WHO GIVES A SHIT ABOUT CARLITO. He oughta keep the beard, man. He looks fuckin tough. I almost could’ve forgot I was watching Mario Van Peebles and start thinking it was Fred the Hammer Williamson.
The camerawork and storytelling and whatnot is obviously not gonna be like DePalma, but I thought it was pretty good. Simple and unpretentious, no MTV shit. The director is called Michael Scott Bregman. He’s wet behind the ears as far as directing but he produced the original CARLITO’S WAY and two TV shows starring Luis Guzman. He was even an editing assistant on SCARFACE. Apparently he’s friends with Edwin Torres, the tough guy judge who wrote the books, so that probaly has something to do with how he ended up doing these movies. Anyway, he gets the Surprisingly Good For DTV award, at least.
I think this movie could be important in the evolution of DTV movies, not as much because its one of the best as because of the push they gave it. It had the most advertising I’ve seen for a DTV movie and I’m just guessing, but I bet it paid off. Of course, it’s a unique case because of the specific kind of following of the original. It’s one of those movies that every famous rapper has on DVD if you see them on Cribs. I’m sure they’re trying to figure out how to do prequels to SCARFACE and THE WARRIORS too but this one was easier to pull off.
So I kind of wondered if it was even fair to compare other DTV movies to something like this, but I checked IMDb and it looks like the budget isn’t huge or anything, it was $9 million. My long time favorite DTV sequel FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 2 apparently cost $5 million. But that was shot in South Africa which I’m sure is alot cheaper than New York. RISE TO POWER is probaly above average budget for this kind of thing. HOUSE OF THE DEAD 2 apparently was $6 million, FRANKENFISH was $3 million. IMDb doesn’t have figures for the WILD THINGS or CRUEL INTENTIONS sequels, or for BOA VS. PYTHON. But the action pictures are alot higher. Wesley Snipes’s UNSTOPPABLE was $15 million, S. Seagal’s OUT FOR A KILL was $20 million.
RISE TO POWER proves that it is technically possible to treat a DTV movie more seriously and make something of a higher quality. You know, that perfect three little bears “just right” level of quality higher than something you would watch on TV but lower than something you would see in a theater. Theoretically. I guess the question for the ghouls with the money is whether it’s more profitable to make a little more expensive movie that some people watch and enjoy or a cheaper one that makes profit on a technicality because it’s stocked at Blockbustert. I guess we’ll see what happens.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.